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  • Type is something we consume

  • in enormous quantities.

  • In much of the world,

  • it's completely inescapable.

  • But few consumers are concerned to know

  • where a particular typeface came from

  • or when or who designed it,

  • if, indeed, there was any human agency involved

  • in its creation, if it didn't just sort of materialize

  • out of the software ether.

  • But I do have to be concerned with those things.

  • It's my job.

  • I'm one of the tiny handful of people

  • who gets badly bent out of shape

  • by the bad spacing of the T and the E

  • that you see there.

  • I've got to take that slide off.

  • I can't stand it. Nor can Chris.

  • There. Good.

  • So my talk is about the connection

  • between technology and design of type.

  • The technology has changed

  • a number of times since I started work:

  • photo, digital, desktop, screen, web.

  • I've had to survive those changes and try

  • to understand their implications for what I do

  • for design.

  • This slide is about the effect of tools on form.

  • The two letters, the two K's,

  • the one on your left, my right, is modern,

  • made on a computer.

  • All straight lines are dead straight.

  • The curves have that kind of mathematical smoothness

  • that thezier formula imposes.

  • On the right, ancient Gothic,

  • cut in the resistant material of steel by hand.

  • None of the straight lines are actually straight.

  • The curves are kind of subtle.

  • It has that spark of life from the human hand

  • that the machine or the program

  • can never capture.

  • What a contrast.

  • Well, I tell a lie.

  • A lie at TED. I'm really sorry.

  • Both of these were made on a computer,

  • same software, samezier curves,

  • same font format.

  • The one on your left

  • was made by Zuzana Licko at Emigre,

  • and I did the other one.

  • The tool is the same, yet the letters are different.

  • The letters are different

  • because the designers are different.

  • That's all. Zuzana wanted hers to look like that.

  • I wanted mine to look like that. End of story.

  • Type is very adaptable.

  • Unlike a fine art, such as sculpture or architecture,

  • type hides its methods.

  • I think of myself as an industrial designer.

  • The thing I design is manufactured,

  • and it has a function:

  • to be read, to convey meaning.

  • But there is a bit more to it than that.

  • There's the sort of aesthetic element.

  • What makes these two letters different

  • from different interpretations by different designers?

  • What gives the work of some designers

  • sort of characteristic personal style,

  • as you might find in the work of a fashion designer,

  • an automobile designer, whatever?

  • There have been some cases, I admit,

  • where I as a designer

  • did feel the influence of technology.

  • This is from the mid-'60s,

  • the change from metal type to photo,

  • hot to cold.

  • This brought some benefits

  • but also one particular drawback:

  • a spacing system that only provided

  • 18 discrete units for letters

  • to be accommodated on.

  • I was asked at this time to design

  • a series of condensed sans serif types

  • with as many different variants as possible

  • within this 18-unit box.

  • Quickly looking at the arithmetic,

  • I realized I could only actually make three

  • of related design. Here you see them.

  • In Helvetica Compressed, Extra Compressed,

  • and Ultra Compressed, this rigid 18-unit system

  • really boxed me in.

  • It kind of determined the proportions

  • of the design.

  • Here are the typefaces, at least the lower cases.

  • So do you look at these and say,

  • "Poor Matthew, he had to submit to a problem,

  • and by God it shows in the results."

  • I hope not.

  • If I were doing this same job today,

  • instead of having 18 spacing units,

  • I would have 1,000.

  • Clearly I could make more variants,

  • but would these three members of the family be better?

  • It's hard to say without actually doing it,

  • but they would not be better in the proportion

  • of 1,000 to 18, I can tell you that.

  • My instinct tells you that any improvement

  • would be rather slight, because they were designed

  • as functions of the system they were designed to fit,

  • and as I said, type is very adaptable.

  • It does hide its methods.

  • All industrial designers work within constraints.

  • This is not fine art.

  • The question is, does a constraint

  • force a compromise?

  • By accepting a constraint,

  • are you working to a lower standard?

  • I don't believe so, and I've always been encouraged

  • by something that Charles Eames said.

  • He said he was conscious of working

  • within constraints,

  • but not of making compromises.

  • The distinction between a constraint

  • and a compromise is obviously very subtle,

  • but it's very central to my attitude to work.

  • Remember this reading experience?

  • The phone book. I'll hold the slide

  • so you can enjoy the nostalgia.

  • This is from the mid-'70s early trials

  • of Bell Centennial typeface I designed

  • for the U.S. phone books,

  • and it was my first experience of digital type,

  • and quite a baptism.

  • Designed for the phone books, as I said,

  • to be printed at tiny size on newsprint

  • on very high-speed rotary presses

  • with ink that was kerosene and lampblack.

  • This is not a hospitable environment

  • for a typographic designer.

  • So the challenge for me was to design type

  • that performed as well as possible

  • in these very adverse production conditions.

  • As I say, we were in the infancy of digital type.

  • I had to draw every character by hand

  • on quadrille graph paper --

  • there were four weights of Bell Centennial

  • pixel by pixel, then encode them raster line by raster line

  • for the keyboard.

  • It took two years, but I learned a lot.

  • These letters look as though they've been chewed

  • by the dog or something or other,

  • but the missing pixels at the intersections

  • of strokes or in the crotches

  • are the result of my studying the effects

  • of ink spread on cheap paper

  • and reacting, revising the font accordingly.

  • These strange artifacts are designed to compensate

  • for the undesirable effects of scale

  • and production process.

  • At the outset, AT&T had wanted

  • to set the phone books in Helvetica,

  • but as my friend Erik Spiekermann said

  • in the Helvetica movie, if you've seen that,

  • the letters in Helvetica were designed to be

  • as similar to one another as possible.

  • This is not the recipe for legibility at small size.

  • It looks very elegant up on a slide.

  • I had to disambiguate these forms

  • of the figures as much as possible in Bell Centennial

  • by sort of opening the shapes up, as you can see

  • in the bottom part of that slide.

  • So now we're on to the mid-'80s,

  • the early days of digital outline fonts,

  • vector technology.

  • There was an issue at that time

  • with the size of the fonts,

  • the amount of data that was required to find

  • and store a font in computer memory.

  • It limited the number of fonts you could get

  • on your typesetting system at any one time.

  • I did an analysis of the data,

  • and found that a typical serif face

  • you see on the left

  • needed nearly twice as much data

  • as a sans serif in the middle

  • because of all the points required

  • to define the elegantly curved serif brackets.

  • The numbers at the bottom of the slide, by the way,

  • they represent the amount of data

  • needed to store each of the fonts.

  • So the sans serif, in the middle,

  • sans the serifs, was much more economical,

  • 81 to 151.

  • "Aha," I thought. "The engineers have a problem.

  • Designer to the rescue."

  • I made a serif type, you can see it on the right,

  • without curved serifs.

  • I made them polygonal, out of straight line segments,

  • chamfered brackets.

  • And look, as economical in data as a sans serif.

  • We call it Charter, on the right.

  • So I went to the head of engineering

  • with my numbers, and I said proudly,

  • "I have solved your problem."

  • "Oh," he said. "What problem?"

  • And I said, "Well, you know, the problem

  • of the huge data you require for serif fonts and so on."

  • "Oh," he said. "We solved that problem last week.

  • We wrote a compaction routine that reduces

  • the size of all fonts by an order of magnitude.

  • You can have as many fonts on your system

  • as you like."

  • "Well, thank you for letting me know," I said.

  • Foiled again.

  • I was left with a design solution

  • for a nonexistent technical problem.

  • But here is where the story sort of gets interesting for me.

  • I didn't just throw my design away

  • in a fit of pique.

  • I persevered.

  • What had started as a technical exercise

  • became an aesthetic exercise, really.

  • In other words, I had come to like this typeface.

  • Forget its origins. Screw that.

  • I liked the design for its own sake.

  • The simplified forms of Charter

  • gave it a sort of plain-spoken quality

  • and unfussy spareness

  • that sort of pleased me.

  • You know, at times of technical innovation,

  • designers want to be influenced

  • by what's in the air.

  • We want to respond. We want to be pushed

  • into exploring something new.

  • So Charter is a sort of parable for me, really.

  • In the end, there was no hard and fast causal link

  • between the technology and the design of Charter.

  • I had really misunderstood the technology.

  • The technology did suggest something to me,

  • but it did not force my hand,

  • and I think this happens very often.

  • You know, engineers are very smart,

  • and despite occasional frustrations

  • because I'm less smart,

  • I've always enjoyed working with them

  • and learning from them.

  • Apropos, in the mid-'90s,

  • I started talking to Microsoft

  • about screen fonts.

  • Up to that point, all the fonts on screen

  • had been adapted from previously existing

  • printing fonts, of course.

  • But Microsoft foresaw correctly

  • the movement, the stampede

  • towards electronic communication,

  • to reading and writing onscreen

  • with the printed output as being sort of secondary

  • in importance.

  • So the priorities were just tipping at that point.

  • They wanted a small core set of fonts

  • that were not adapted but designed for the screen

  • to face up to the problems of screen,

  • which